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Why agencies continue to invest in training and education even as a potential recession adds financial pressure

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More agencies are providing in-house education to level up their employees in an increasingly competitive hybrid workplace.

These aren’t your typical four-year colleges culminating in a degree or graduations: think free hybrid learning and career development tailored to today’s marketers and media professionals. Organizations from WPP’s media arm GroupM to global marketing firm Kepler Group have established their own learning and development schools aimed at helping employees pursue advanced careers and keep pace in a fast-moving industry. More importantly, agencies that invest in learning may have a leg up when it comes to recruiting and retention — and it’s a spend they say they plan to keep even as the entire marketing landscape descends into a potential recession.

“There are evolving needs of the workforce to attract and retain talent, and agencies are looking to answer that in a few different ways,” Sean McGlade, svp of talent and learning solutions at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), told Digiday. “[They] have to be more receptive to getting people up from the ground and … give people a sense of belonging right away.”

In the coming months, 4A’s will continue rolling out its so-called agency accelerator program, designed to support agencies that may have gaps in their resources and training programs. It offers four certifications for onboarding as well as foundational training for new hires and newcomers in the first three years of their careers.

But the wealth of online training materials alone can be overwhelming, from business schools to online providers like Udemy or Coursera, which means the agencies are challenged to find content that’s relevant, current and high quality. Agencies could actually help employees cut down on time searching for resources by creating their own content, McGlade said.

GroupM University opened its school this past March with a $15 million commitment over three years to provide training, career coaching and personal enrichment classes for employees. Launch Pad participants complete a 12-week curriculum, offered both online and in-person, focused on topics in media foundations, building networks and business communication. The first cohort in the U.S. began this June and marks the first year of the program launched in North America.

Brian Dashew, named GroupM’s head of learning and development for North America in July, designed the curriculum. Coming from Rutgers University and Columbia University, Dashew sees continuous learning as personal to that employee’s career experience. GroupM tailors programming to a person’s profile to recommend content at different stages of their career.

“This is more than training,” Dashew said. “The media industry is not a space in which anybody can ever really claim to be done learning.”

GroupM University’s program may eventually get linked with internal credentialing at the agency. The goal of their training is to help people understand their career paths within GroupM and provide the tools and resources for them to grow in their roles. Career development and goal-setting are built into the various learning pathways in order to support the individual’s development.

“We are imagining new ways of offering internal credentials that make mobility across the organization more viable,” Dashew said.

Similarly, Kepler Group’s Kepler University offers a mix of 50 in-person, live and on-demand courses designed for marketing experts to advance into advisory and consulting roles. Kepler has offered internal learning and development since its founding in 2012, according to the company, and it has continued updating the content with the help of subject matter experts within the organization.

“We haven’t let it go stale,” said Karinna Maldonado, director of learning and development for Kepler. “Career development is a hot topic.”

Kepler’s courses cover a range of subjects, from brand safety to campaign analytics, and follow several different learning paths with a course structure, not unlike universities. But unlike a college class, lectures are not just instructors presenting to a room of students — students are guided by peer-to-peer learning, self-reflection time after class, and other practice exercises, such as working in sandbox environments on platforms.

Maldonado emphasized that organizations have to make time for learning. Kepler newcomers, for example, get three uninterrupted weeks for onboarding and learning. And with Kepler’s 2020 acquisition of Infectious Media, based in London and Singapore, the company has had to think globally about expanding its learning tools.

“It impacted how we think about our employees,” Maldonado said. “We localize content where it makes sense … such as [General Data Protection Regulation] for advertising.”

While Kepler did not provide an investment figure (it estimated a cost “in the millions”) for its university programs, developing people comes at a cost to organizations. With a potential recession looming, 4A’s’ McGlade pointed out training is often “the first casualty” in budget cuts. But asked whether Kepler foresees any cuts in this department, Maldonado said only that they will “keep investing” in employees.

GroupM echoed that it has “no intention to scale back” any committed spending on learning. “There is absolutely a high cost associated with developing talent, but the reality is that there is an even higher cost associated with not developing talent,” Dashew said.

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